As the title suggests, yes, this is a whole post dedicated to a tunnel. Stay with me, this particular tunnel is brilliant, I promise. Not just a means from A to B, this is a civil engineering wonder of its time, a true piece of Hamburg heritage and an attraction in its own right.
Allow me to introduce, the Old Elbe Tunnel. Also known locally as the Alter Elbtunnel and officially as the St. Pauli Elbtunnel. And here’s why the old tunnel is a Hamburg must-see…
It’s Part of Hamburg City History
At 24m deep and 426m long, the Elbe Tunnel was a technical marvel when it was opened in 1911. It was built to to serve the growing port; when expansion meant the heavy industries had to move across to the other side of the Elbe, there also needed to be a way of transporting dock workers.
The Old Elbe Tunnel was actually modelled on Glasgow’s original Clyde Tunnel. This sort of knowledge is quiz question gold. You’re welcome.
Due to its nature, the tunnel was protected from the bombing raids of WW2 and is today a lovingly cared for piece of Hamburg heritage. Having been a protected monument since 2003, on its 100th anniversary, the tunnel was granted the status of “Historic Landmark of Civil Engineering in Germany”. No ordinary tunnel, this.
The Old Elbe Tunnel is part of the DNA of Hamburg and an outstanding bit of German civil engineering. But it’s not all about the technical stuff, because …
Old Elbe Tunnel- Thing of Beauty
If you think tunnel, you might think practical, technical. Beautiful? Not quite so much. This one will have you thinking differently.
Starting above ground, the entrances and lift machinery are housed in eye catching dome shaped buildings. Look up before you descend under the River Elbe, the brown stone domes with ornate windows and carved figures are worth taking a moment to admire.
The blue and bronze tiling at the tunnel entrance is striking and stylish, not to mention the gorgeous pendant light. Love the marriage of form and function. It seems Hamburg has always been a stylish city with an eye for a thing of beauty.
Vintage Vibes ( And Lifts)
Stepping into the domes to descend into the tunnel is like a step back in time. Soaring ceilings and old school lifts. Being a lover of all things vintage, this place did not disappoint and I thought the lifts endearingly old school. No bland metal boxes here.
More lovely tiles to be found as you make your way in. Thinking of it, I also loved tile-spotting on the London underground too. Guess I’ll be adding ‘vintage tiling’ to the list of Things Helen Loves.
The old lifts look a bit fragile given the traffic they were designed to serve, but they are handsome and it’s fascinating to watch them creak up and down. FYI, I’d take the stairs down and maybe the lift back up. The lifts might be slow but those stairs were steeper and longer than they looked.
The Old Elbe Tunnel
The tunnel itself. What a space. Symmetrical lighting on the curved walls create an atmosphere that is almost cosy. its easy to see why this space has been used for events and filming, it’s very atmospheric.
It’s incredible to think about all the people who have passed through this space, from the dock workers for whom it was created right up to the modern day visitor. So many people, and each one with their own story.
More tiling beauty in the tunnel itself, as the white walls are broken at intervals with majolica tiles of a maritime and port city theme. My favourite, this one of a boot being gnawed on by rats. For a beautiful tile, it has something dark and pirate-esque about it.
On the Other Side…
Emerging on the opposite side of the river, you’ll find some great viewing points from which you’ll get some different views of riverside Hamburg.
The St Pauli piers or Landungsbrücken with its green domes is impressive viewed in full and from afar. From this side of the Elbe you’ll see a bit of old working Hamburg as well as the modern face of the city.
You’ll also spot the Elbphilharmonie. A building that divides opinion but there’s no denying it has become a Hamburg landmark. A bit like the Old Elbe Tunnel itself, really.
Post Tunnel Pottering
Stick around and explore the neighbourhood. St Pauli is famous for being the place to party and home to the notorious Reeperbahn, but there’s more to this corner of Hamburg than that. Stroll the riverside, visit Beatles Platz to see where it all began for the ‘Fab Four’. The Museum of Hamburg History is just a short walk from the tunnel and is home to some quirky and intriguing exhibits.
If you want to look over what you’ve just walked under, make the mile or so walk along to the aforementioned Elbphilharmonie. There’s a viewing platform 37m up , open to all from 10.00 until late and the views are stunning. Tickets can be booked in advance and cost 2 euros.
Old Elbe Tunnel Inspiration
Well, the Old Elbe Tunnel is no secret. Google ‘things to do Hamburg’ and it comes up without fail. My inspiration to experience the tunnel came from reading The Wolf Children by Cay Rademacher. Set in post-war Hamburg, the story opens in the shipyards and the final scenes are played out in the tunnel.
I took the book to Hamburg with me for a reread and , just like the city and the tunnel itself, it didn’t disappoint.
The Old Elbe Tunnel is free to visit for pedestrians and cyclists. Open at all times with the exception of New Years Eve.
Post originally published in 2018, updated and republished 2022.
Beautiful – and I love those vintage green tube tiles, too!
They are beautiful, aren’t they? I do love a lovely tile 😊
Oh, I was going to say it reminds me of home! I’ve been in both rotundas on the Clyde but the tunnel itself is inaccessible. I think they are definitely missing a trick (very typical of Glasgow, which has never made enough of its waterfront).
I did think of you when I read that! It is a shame the Clyde Tunnel isn’t accessible , and that Glasgow isn’t making the most of its waterfront and Industrial heritage. Definitely something that should be celebrated!
It’s starting to get there but when I think of the cafes etc along river boulevards in other cities it has a long way to go. Huge gaps with nothing happening.
It’s good to know London is ahead of Glasgow and up with Hamburg because the rotundas and the tunnel echo (Ho Ho) with memories of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels. The London versions are narrower and creepier in my view but still worth the effort and the joy of crossing the river in secret. The Woolwich tunnel is part of the Capital Ring which we’ve spoken about before Helen, so you’ve no excuse not to visit it, if you haven’t already!,
I got so near yet so far with the Greenwich foot tunnel, we’ve been near enough twice and just timed out. I’m far too easily distracted when walking, by things I never planned to see but then can’t just walk past! The Woolwich tunnel looks not unlike the old Elbe, I love that the entrances to that one are listed.
This definitely looks worth exploring, with not a piece of sewage or even a rat (not a live one anyway) on the journey, but instead, lots to explore.
So cool – what a beautiful tunnel (a sentence I never thought I’d write!)
History and travel make a great pair for me. It’s natural to discover a country’s culture and history when visiting. The vintage blue tiles are lovely!
History and travel is definitely a winning combination! The tiles are gorgeous, aren’t they? I’m glad they were preserved. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.
Fascinating sight and history Helen. Particularly enjoyed this as Hamburg would be top of my list if we ever go back to Germany (I’m a Beatles fanatic you see). Oh to know some of the stories that played out within that tunnel, they have done a wonderful job preserving it, love the blue and bronze colours.
Hamburg is amazing, very laid back and with enough rough edges to keep it interesting. And definitely one for a Beatles fan! Expensive though, by German standards.
Thank you 😊